Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

The Educoaster

The Educoaster

The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive. Here he was, buried in the belly of that smothering month, wondering if he would ever find his way out through the cold coils that lay between here and Easter.

 He didn't think much of his chances.

These are the opening lines to Clive Barker’s YA novel, “The Thief of Always.” That’s right, (air quotes) novelist Clive Barker, the Pepsi Clear of the literary world. Anyway, I read this book back when I was in 7th grade, and somehow the opening has stuck with me for over 20 years. It’s amazing how the feelings and words that resonated with my 7th grade self are just as relevant to me as an adult educator. That’s either a perfect example (albeit, in Clive Barker’s case, a unique example) of good writing, or a perfect example of what my therapist refers to as “profoundly stunted emotional development.” There’s really no way to know.

I’ve touched on this concept before (and I’ve certainly felt it this year): the Great Grey Beast February can consume the best of us. In fact, one of the most sinister things about the Great Grey Beast February (the one in education, that is) is that it actually starts eating you alive on the first day of school. It’s like how we all refer to the age when toddlers start losing their goddamned minds as the “terrible twos.” What most people fail to realize is that one of the worst parts about the terrible twos is that they actually start at 18 months (that’s parent-speak for a year and a half. I have no idea why we do this. Perhaps sleep deprivation and endless loops of Elmo videos have left us mentally unstable and, like a bizarre version of the Joker, we’re just trying to watch the world burn through unnecessary mathematics)!

This is not a new concept in education. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this graph/chart that has appeared in over a dozen academic research papers from Harvard all the way to Oxford University in London.

Just kidding. I made this last night on Google Draw. But it still holds (some) validity!

See if anything about this chart looks familiar to you:

Being an educator is like being on a never-ending rollercoaster—an Educoaster, if you will. Seriously, look at the MC Escher-style nightmare above and tell me that you don’t know exactly what this ride feels like. Think about it. When you start the school year, you begin at the peak of excitement and enthusiasm for the school year. You’ve got new students, new opportunities, new dry erase markers, and finally the new projector you’d requested every year for four years until you finally said, “Screw it, I’ll get it on Donors Choose!” But while you’re happily using your new overhead projector (The colors finally make sense! I can show a movie clip and the people won’t look green! Praise be!!), what you don’t realize is that you’ve already been thrown into a secret war with the Great Grey Beast February.

See, once the honeymoon period ends (aka: week 1 of the school year), your energy and enthusiasm slowly start to diminish, and by December, you’re already feeling or fighting off what I’ve dubbed “Burnout Season.” Fortunately, winter break gives you a needed boost of energy and enthusiasm (“New Year, New You,” and all that). But then second semester begins and you start  to sink lower and lower until you find yourself trapped somewhere between winter break, spring break, and Dante’s seventh circle of hell.

But then something magical happens. You can sense Spring Break is just weeks, if not days away. And, as an experienced educator, you know that when you get back from the break, you’ll be on a downhill run towards the finish line. Before you know it, April and May will be gone, and you’ll be staring the end of the school year in the eye and putting the Great Grey Beast February in the far distance behind you. Summer break then gives you enough time to recharge and you start the cycle all over again when the new school year begins. It’s basically the most boring episode of Planet Earth you’ve ever seen.

So, right about now, you might be thinking, “Okayif this happens every year, what’s the point of writing about it? Just to state the obvious?” To which I say, wrong again, imaginary naysayer who consistently reads my blog, comments on all of my posts, and is somehow now my best friend in the whole world. The whole point behind writing about this is to help you protect yourself from succumbing to the trappings of February and March as often as possible—because, after all, you won’t be able to avoid the trap every year, but you can avoid it most years.

Obvious fact alert: the way roller coasters work is that the cars follow the tracks that have been laid before them. If the tracks go down, the cars go down and if the tracks go up, the cars go up. Okay, now that we’ve gotten the complex physics of roller coasters out of the way, let’s follow this metaphor of the emotional journey of a teacher acting in the same manner as a roller coaster.

The year is naturally designed to create high points and low points (peaks and valleys). However, if you start to build new tracks at the beginning of the year, tracks that keep the cars on a more even path, you can avoid the major dips that the school year is designed to create. So how does one build new tracks? Well, you can do it through intentional unit design, through developing close relationships with your students, and through creating a truly positive classroom environment. You also do it through the forced manufacturing of victories for both you and your students (never underestimate the power of manufactured victories).

Look, you know when you and your kids will start to hit a wall, so why not plan ahead and figure out ways to boost the morale of your classroom by creating an easy win for everyone? When I make my daily “To-Do” list, for example, I always include “Wake Up” and “Go To Work” on my list. Why? Because it feels so damned good to be able to cross two things off my list by 7am, that’s why! Do your students start to hit the wall between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Create a day in which the class celebrates the students with the largest recorded academic growth so far! Do you typically feel the strain between January and February? Use that time to have your kids work on a project you love! Nothing reignites your enthusiasm as an educator like a passion project! You get the idea…

Whatever your solution is, don’t put off planning it until you are closer to the problem. You can’t lay leveled tracks if you’re already moving downhill. Again, it’s like having an 18 month old child in your house: just when you think you’ve got six months of sanity remaining, BOOM! Guess what, mom and dad? I’m officially a toddler, and I’m here to gaslight you all day, every day! Now bring me that thing I’ve always loved so I can tell you how much I hate it now!

Now you’re probably thinking, “Okay, you said that you can’t avoid these traps every year, but what if you’re, like, one of those super happy teachers? Surely those teachers can avoid the February trap every year!” Wrong again, bestie! Things can still happen, despite your best efforts, and things can happen that are beyond your control. Teachers are people, after all (which is a true statement and not the name of the ill-fated sequel to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”).

Take me, for example. I’ve had a lot of changes in my life this year, both personally and professionally. I’m lucky enough that nearly all of these changes have been positive changes, but, as I’ve mentioned before: whether it’s negative or positive, all change is loss. While managing all of these changes this year, I lost sight of the tracks I was so used to layingand I ended up dropping lower on the Educoaster than I’ve ever been in my 12 years of teaching. It was rough. I honestly don’t know how some teachers deal with feeling that low year in and year out. Frankly, I couldn’t say for certain that I’d still be in education if I knew that every February would feel the way this last February felt. I certainly wouldn’t be “one of those super happy teachers.”

Hopefully, this won’t happen to you. Hopefully, you won’t fall into the traps of February and March. Hopefully, you’ll read this and remember my words next year and for many years beyond that. Because I’d not only like to imagine a world where I’ve contributed something positive to the educational world, I’d also like to imagine a world where my writing is at least at Clive Barker’s level.



Thanks, Obama.

Thanks, Obama.